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Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies

Explore the middle ages with one of the oldest centres of medieval studies in the UK.

The Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies (GCMS) at the University of Reading, aims to facilitate and encourage interdisciplinary study at postgraduate level and to serve as a social and intellectual meeting point for all medievalists.

The centre is made up of academic staff and postgraduates from all fields of medieval studies within the University. It also has an extensive range of affiliates and alumni in other universities and research centres in the UK and beyond.

The centre publishes an annual peer-reviewed journal, Reading Medieval Studies. It also runs an annual programme of visiting speakers and a Summer Symposium.

Hear from a medievalist

Listen to Professor Rebecca Rist (GCMS Director) talk about her research in medieval religious and cultural history, and the GCMS.

Hear from a medievalist: transcript

Full written transcript of 'Hear from a medievalist'.

Ruth: Hello and welcome to history. I'm Doctor Ruth Salter. And today I'm joined by fellow medievalist Dr. Rebecca Rist and Rebecca Works on religious and cultural history looking at the Crusades, papacy and minorities. Rebecca what was it that Interested you in the subject area in the first place?

Rebecca: I think there are a number of factors and the first was that I did history at A levels. We had a very inspiring teacher who helped me think about the subject both at an intellectual level and at an emotional level. I then had a gap year in the Middle East. And I was involved in a number of archeological digs I worked in a museum in Jerusalem. I am partly Jewish myself as well. I think as you will see when interview progresses that also has been a factor. I come from a Catholic background as well. And I think since the Medieval period is a period in the Western Europe at the height of its power. If you like, I think that's another reason why the subject has always fascinated me.

Ruth: Does that play a little bit then into your most recent book Pope and the Jews?

Rebecca: Yes, very much so. Having both Catholic and Jewish background, it was a subject that I found riveting from the very beginning. Obviously there's been a lot of research over the years on Pope’s position and policies towards Jews. We have this huge amount of the chair and what I was trying to do in the book was to bring that material together, but I was also in the book was going to look at things from a Jewish perspective as well. What medieval Jews think about the papacy and what they thought about Individual popes. One of the chapters, in particular the look is really new research in that area and research and I hope that other scholars will take further.

Ruth: What about the usual [inaudible]? Is there the same kind of surviving manuscripts? How easy is it to get hold of that material.

Rebecca: Yes, so there I was obviously looking at Hebrew sources. Many of which had been edited from the original manuscripts. But what's tended to happen is that, though there's been a lot of research done, on these Hebrew chronicles or Hebrew letters the angle hasn't been specifically well, let's look at what these medieval Jews thought about popes in particular, but yes, you are right it was very important for me I have some Hebrew but it was very important for me to work with someone who had mediaeval Hebrew as it was someone from the synagogue here in Reading who helped me over a number of years in analysing and understanding those important texts.

Ruth: So it sounds like a lot was discovered in this book and some really exciting new angles. What are your kind of final thoughts what are your conclusions coming through from the book?

Rebecca: So one of the things I was trying to do in the book was to bring together a lot of different scholarship. Historians have very different ideas as to why Christian church relations did deteriorate at the height of the middle ages. So some historians have very much positive the crusades as marking a turning point thinking things got very much worse for Jews communities in Europe. Some have thought it very much it is to do with Christians getting to know the Torah, the great holy book for the Jews and their discomfort that the Old Testament, which they hope will leave Jews to an understanding of the New Testament, that that was not going to happen, that the Jews had their own sacred book. And that was very disquieting for lot of Christians. Other historians have thought about the world of money lending in Christian society at this time and this, and the fact that for various social and economic reasons as well as the reasons to do with the law and the church’s position towards the Jews. Jews increasingly seem to be fulfilling those roles as in money lenders in Christian society. And again it to have asked did this increase envy towards Jews? Did it contribute to deteriorating image of the Jew? We know about the Jew as money lenders think about Shylock, Shakespearian and so on.

Ruth: Yes.

Rebecca: I am very influenced by the work of someone called Jeremy Cohen who thinks the arrival of what you like the friars of mendicant orders in the 13th century helped very much with this gradual deterioration of relations because the papacy had always upheld what we referred to as the Poline Augustinian line on the Jews. Which was that a remnant would be saved at the end of days and that they therefore, they should be left alone, as it were in Christian society, restricted, yes, but also to some extent protected. However with the coming friars, we get much more of a drive towards polamisism the friars are very worried about heresy, Jews increasingly are being forced to listen to conversionary sermons and I think that is one major factor why we do get this deterioration of relations. I'm not saying that the friar is the only element here. But they are an important element to consider. Along with suggesting other elements such as the crusaides increasing norde of the Torah the growth of money lending. So on so there is a whole range of factors. But I think this gradual undermining of the Pauline Augustinian theory is a crucial factor here.

Ruth: So I mean one thing I guess is Jews as a minority in Europe at the time are quite in a unique situation and changing situations starting with deteriorating relations. But compared to the other minorities either in Europe or on the borders they hold a very special place if you compare them with some kind of other text seen in Islamic world. Is there any kind of future projects going to look at some of these other minorities. What is the next big project?

Rebecca: Yes just going to touch on something you said there. Jews really are such a special minority for Christians. Not least because Christianity was originally a sect of Judaism and as I say Next big project really are a very special minority for Christians, not least because Christianity was originally a sect of Judaism. Just touch on. Something you said. And as I say. There's this tension all the time in medieval Europe between wanting to protect the Jews as those who are prevails of the old testament but also being as it were dissatisfied with their religion because there is this unhappiness that they have not accepted Christ. So yes, there's a very special group within medieval Europe.

However, yes, of course. I'm very interested in other minority groups, Muslims because of my works on the crusades and also increasingly now heretics. And that's right, that is my next major project. In a sense, I'm going to do something a little bit similar. In that I want to look at both these views of these different heretical groups we find in medieval Europe in this period. But also the other. Side of the story always important to have both sides of the story. So Heretics and their views of the pope, papacy because you know we lump these groups under the title of heretics but of course, they were very, very differently than each other. We're talking about Cathros talking about [inaudible]. Moving into the late Medieval period we're looking at, Lollards and of course who are the Lollards ? Are the Lollards in the 14th century different from Lollards in the early 16th century. So yes, heretics is there. The next major project? But it all is in this wider context of my interest in papacy and its relationship to minorities.

Ruth: What question we've got with heretics is. Did they see themselves as heretics? I mean, did they see themselves as being? Against the church? Or is this really? The view that comes from the papacy?

Rebecca: Yes, that's very important. Historians work on Heresy. And putting this very loosely but. They tend to form to two major camps, those who very much see heretics and construction by the church for its own reasons, reasons of power politics reasons of trying to bring together into formation of coherent church so those who very much see heresy and heretics as a construction of the medieval church. And then on the other side. The two sides are, you know. They often fall out. Many historiographical debates of the lively nature the other side that very much want to emphasize the pastoral nature of pope and papacy, and there are real concerns about theology of correct Christian practice. What I am finding very interesting with this new project is is trying to understand where both accounts are coming from and hopefully not to be too influenced by either, as I try to navigate my way through the primary sources and materials.

Ruth: so we discussed a little about the other archives you found doing the research on kind of Jewish element and thing. I'm assuming that it's going to be as harder and harder to find records from the heretics perspective. Where do we find kind of sources from their view point?

Rebecca: Yes, this is one of the major difficulties we have trying to get hold of heretical voices there are a mixture of, types of evidence obviously we have what the Inquisition Records was saying when heretics were brought to trial, but of course we have to be very careful using those sources because what describes the recorded is not necessarily what the heretic said under duress. Nevertheless we use that material because of the lack of evidence of heretics. Specifically We we do have a few, as it were, heretical texts, things like the Cathar secret right, for example. And we do have some manuscripts discussion of Lollard's theology. Obviously we have in the Lollards case the work of Wickliffe himself, but of course is a big debate there as to what extent his ideas are important for certainly for later [inaudible]. But Lordy, has a particular problem that it's both an intellectual heresy, but also popular heresy. So we have those issues of influence. But you're right, we're often actually. Having to look at heresy through the prism of those who are doing the persecuting. So we're looking at inquisition records, we're looking at payment documents. We're looking at considering legislation. We're looking at calendar. But occasionally particularly as as the Middle Ages goes on. Into the 14th 15th century. We can actually find. The text of the heretics themselves.

Ruth: Are these texts in Latin or are they in vernacular languages?

Rebecca: So official documents for church are always going to be in Latin. And there I’m very much at an advantage and I'm very thankful because of my original training as a classicist that my Latin is very good and that I can read these documents. But for some other texts for example if we think about tribal poetry, if we think about [inaudible] who criticising pauper singing song at the end of the 13th century, then we may well be looking at for an vernacular text, and that's a whole new area which I am just beginning to get a handle on.

Ruth: So this new project builds. It's really fascinating. Something you're doing. In your own right as a private scholar? Are you doing anything more collaboratively as well?

Rebecca: I have a big Project, which involved with two others. One at the University of Huddersfield and one at the University of Birmingham. We actually have two two contracts with Routledge. For two books. This subject this is looking at Catholic devotion, piety. What I call long due ray. Which is from the beginning of what I term the high or central [inaudible] right through to [inaudible] 16th to the early 17th. Century and the aim of this project is to look at how Catholicism developed from the medieval period where obviously these, the majority religion in Western Europe. Right through past reformation to where it becomes very much a religion of secrecy, Clandestine worship with those we are, I should emphasise, for our project specifically. It happens to English Catholicsm which quite different, to what happens to Catholicism on the continent. and of course I'm only looking at high middle ages bit of this project. The two people I'm working with are late medieval scholar at Birmingham and early modernist at Huddersfield, and the idea is that they will each work on our discrete section of the project. And then come together. To produce these two books, one an academic publication and the other a trade publication and very much we're we're trying to continue the scholarship done by very eminent scholars like Aimen and Duffy. And look at Catholic continuity and also Catholic change. What it meant to be a Catholic on the eve of the Reformation and what happened to Catholics after that that crucial period. So anyway, this is something I'm very much doing as part of a team. It's a long term project. I think it's quite healthy way to work with them because you have your own particular interest. As he was saying, as a private individual but also. Trying to share your expertise with other scholars and because I'm working on heresy. While I can't work on heresy and I understand Orthodoxy, as it were. So this project. Specifically, on Catholic piety means that I'm getting that. Balance, so hopefully both projects are sort of feeding off each other and will help both to flourish in the end hopefully.

Ruth: As if you weren't busy enough already with these two projects, you're also taking over the drectorship, of the graduate center of medieval studies (GCMS) here at Reading, that's gonna be another big project of a difference sort. I know already you've. Got some exciting ideas about things for this year are we able to get a sneak peek?

Rebecca: Yes, the directorship is a great responsibility. And because of the very illustrious history of medieval here in Reading, names such as. Frank Stenton was another very. For the formation of the Graduate Center for medieval studies. But he was the first I believe the professor of History in the department here in Reading, so I really am very grateful for this opportunity and I am following in the footsteps of excellent predecessors held the directorship in recent years. My vision for the center is one of inclusivity. I I'm hoping not only to try and maintain the historians presence in the center, but also to reach out to people who do medieval studies. Who are perhaps not only in history. So, philosophers, classicists, obviously people in in the languages department. So to make the GCM centre as an inclusive place, as possible as how can we understand the medieval world, for example, if one doesn't have an understanding at least to some degree of the medieval philosophers at the age and if I have to have a buzz word it would be inclusivity and also just trying to maintain our excellent presence so, you know Ruth you attended Leeds international medieval conferences in recent years and you. Know how important it is that we keep up our profile. Our international events. So that's again something that. I very much want to keep many of the medieval studies alive and kicking both in the History Department and in the center.

Ruth: It sounds really exciting what you got planned for next year, of course, the other major part of the graduate centre for medieval studies is the fact that it offers places for students to do masters level study and PhD level study.

Rebecca: GCMS has always managed to recruit very well in terms of postgraduates we usually have a mixture of what I like to call home grown students, students who have done History with us at Reading and hopefully already has a good grounding in both medieval and early modern studies. But we also like to reach out to mature students and over the years we've had a number of really excellent students who have taken the MA or the MRes as it now is in medieval studies and produced first class dissertations. I can't praise the MRes enough as a course to study, you can do it at one year or over two years, or modularly over up to I believe 6 years. And really we try and bring out the best in our students. But also train them in those disciplines, they really need to be a good medievalists, so we have training for them in Latin we have training for them in paleography and we also encourage them to do options essays of particular areas they are interested in. Women's history, heresy, magic, competition, kings, all these things as essays and then decide what they want to do for that final dissertation in the end where hopefully they can bring together all those skills they learn with their Latin and the paleography and bring it together in a first class dissertation. And then of course, if that goes well for them, then there are opportunities for them to continue studying at PhD level. We do try to help financially, that's obviously very difficult. But we do have things like the Pickering prize we do have the possibility of bursaries for some students and obviously we're up there trying to fight for them to get those AHRC bursaries if they can as well.

Ruth: I know I am slightly biased myself being a medievalist. It is very vibrant department. Like the history department itself, for GCMS can be found on. Twitter and we can be found on Facebook so if anyone interested in I do recommend having a look. But before I end up basically just promoting the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies on here, I think it's probably fair enough to wrap up. And to say thank you very much to you, Rebecca for joining us today and talking about the fascinating research into medieval religious and cultural history. So thank you very much Rebecca.

Rebecca: Thanks very much, Ruth.

Ruth: And thank you very much for listening as well, this has been history talking. We'll see you next time.

Engage in interdisciplinary research 

Expertise is drawn from eight Departments across the University, namely, Archaeology, Business studies, Classical studies, Economics, English, History, Philosophy and Modern Languages (particularly French, German and Italian). Previous research projects have included: a study of monastic buildings, drawing upon both archaeological and documentary evidence; a study of concepts of demons and their powers; and a study of female aristocrats and their patronage in Capetian France.